Omicron leads to fresh wave of scientific meeting cancellations | Science

In a near rerun of early 2020, when dozens of meetings were canceled on short notice because of the pandemic, a handful of scientific societies are once again canceling their in-person meetings as the ultracontagious Omicron variant sweeps across the globe. Although many societies were better prepared for the latest wave because they planned hybrid meetings that could shed their in-person components, meetings for astronomers and mathematicians were caught off-guard and forced to cancel altogether. Some societies—including a meeting of biologists this week—are doggedly plowing ahead with in-person components, taking extra safety precautions.

One big cancellation came today from the AAAS, the largest general science society in the world and the publisher of Science. It said it would cancel the in-person component of its annual meeting, set to take place next month in Philadelphia. The online segment of the hybrid meeting will proceed as planned.

AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh says the driving force behind the decision was “protecting the health and wellbeing of our staff, members, and attendees.” But the association’s board and staff also had to consider that the meeting could contribute to the virus’ spread. “It has public health consequences. As a scientific organization, it would be hard to justify,” he says.

The American Meteorological Society announced today that it, too, is canceling the in-person component of its annual meeting in Houston later this month, whereas the Joint Mathematics Meetings, a wholly in-person event planned for this week in Seattle, will be replaced by a virtual meeting in April.

Unlike in early 2020, many societies now have experience with virtual meetings and many were already planning hybrid ones. Parikh says because AAAS had planned a hybrid meeting, it could cancel the in-person components with less disruption. But the wasted effort from AAAS’s partners in Philadelphia, including Drexel University, was “truly unfortunate,” he says.   

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) could not pivot as readily. Last month it canceled its annual meeting in Salt Lake City, a largely in-person event scheduled to take place next week. AAS had planned to make some sessions available online, but AAS staff were not able to shift to a full virtual meeting in the few weeks available, so the whole thing was abandoned. “We’ll take a big financial hit—we’re still unwinding that—but it’s still the right decision, despite the aftermath,” says AAS Executive Officer Kevin Marvel.

The society’s board had decided in October 2021 to go ahead with a largely in-person meeting, mostly because of the cost of doing both in-person and virtual, Marvel says. By mid-November, almost 2200 people had signed up to go to Utah. But as COVID-19 cases surged in December, the board reconsidered. Rather than trying to organize a fully virtual meeting on short notice, it decided to give up on the meeting altogether and make the society’s smaller summer meeting into the main event of the year. Marvel says it will be hybrid, with the ability to shift to entirely virtual built-in. “We’re looking to make it as impactful as the winter meeting.”

Although astronomers have welcomed the consideration for their well-being, there are frustrations. “I was really just disappointed at the lack of contingency planning,” says astronomer Elisabeth Mills of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, who has lost grant money from nonrefundable hotel bills. “Having a robust virtual hybrid plan is going to be necessary for the next few years.”

In contrast, the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) went ahead with its meeting this week in Phoenix. The meeting was originally planned as an in-person event to be followed by a 6-week virtual meeting where all the talks and posters would take place online. 

Over the past month or so, a steady trickle of in-person presenters switched to virtual. Then as Omicron took off, that number surged. “That was my worst nightmare, that the whole thing would fall apart,” says Jake Socha, a comparative biomechanist at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University who oversaw setting up the program. “We considered canceling [the in-person meeting] multiple times,” he says. But in-person attendance numbers only dropped from 1500 to 1000, and he and the organizers felt it was important to go ahead as long as they felt they could do it safely, in accordance with city, state, and federal guidelines. The Phoenix Convention Center has a top-of-the-line ventilation system and, as an added precaution, SICB placed air filtration systems near the podium in meeting rooms so presenters could have the option of speaking without masks. Audience seating was moved farther from the speaker as well.

SICB also required attendees to show they had been vaccinated and wear masks. They placed posters farther apart and shifted social gatherings outdoors—not so hard to do in Phoenix in January. Some sessions were spiked or became virtual when speakers tested positive before the meeting. But the organizers worked hard—on New Year’s Eve until 11 p.m.—to reorganize the program to avoid gaps. “It was a wild ride, and it was tough,” Socha says. Most attendees seem content with the experience. “I’m not so good at being remote,” says Todd Oakley, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “And I like it that the meeting is a little less crowded.” The true test will be in the numbers of COVID-19 cases among delegates in the coming weeks.

Parikh says he can’t imagine future AAAS annual meetings without a virtual component. “There’s too much to be gained,” he says, in terms of increased participation and reduced travel time, costs, and carbon footprints. But he doesn’t belittle the value of meeting friends and collaborators face to face. “We can do online for one more year,” he says. “We’ll be back in 2023.”